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What Can a Private Investigator Do and Not Do?


There are a lot of myths that people believe about private investigators. In the movies, private eyes may break into buildings to get information, follow people and take photos of what’s happening inside a home, or perform other acts that real private investigators aren’t allowed to do. If you are hiring a private investigator, or you believe you’re being investigated, knowing what a PI can and cannot do is important.


Private investigators are professionals who are good at finding information and can use it to help anyone who needs more information about a person or a business. They must act within the confines of the law to gather the information needed, but they can help with a variety of tasks. This can include looking for birth parents, checking the security of a business for the owner, looking for a missing person, or finding out if a spouse is cheating. A private investigator can work on a variety of different types of cases and can find quite a bit of information without needing to break the law. 


In most circumstances, a private investigator is not able to arrest someone, even if they see them committing a crime. The private investigator does have the ability to document the crime occurring, as long as they don’t break any laws to do so and can contact law enforcement to let them know about the crime. This could lead to the person’s arrest, but the private investigator would not be the one arresting them, as they are not police officers. A private investigator can sometimes make a citizen’s arrest if it’s legal in their jurisdiction. Some states allow this while others forbid it. However, a citizen’s arrest isn’t actually an arrest, and the private investigator cannot take the person to jail. Instead, they can detain someone until the police arrive and arrest them. 


Private investigators are able to gather evidence when they’re conducting surveillance, with restrictions that vary from state to state. When they are gathering evidence, if they do find evidence of a crime, they can contact the police department to alert them to the crime. They can then document as much as possible about the crime while they wait for law enforcement officers to arrive. The private investigator can then hand over any evidence they might have to the police officers who arrive at the scene. The information gained by the private investigator can then be used against the arrested person in court to secure a conviction. All evidence that is handed over to law enforcement needs to be gained legally, but private investigators do have a lot of ways to gather evidence before speaking with the police about a crime. 


A private investigator is not a law enforcement officer and, therefore, cannot impersonate one, even accidentally. This is something that law enforcement agencies take very seriously. For this reason, most states do not allow private investigators to wear a uniform or carry a badge. If a private investigator has a badge or uniform and someone mistakenly believes they’re a police officer, they can get in trouble and can be arrested. In places where a badge is required, licensed private investigators are generally careful to avoid the misconception that they are working for local, state, or federal law enforcement officers. 


Though private investigators can go anywhere that is public, they are not allowed to trespass. They cannot enter a property, house or building that they do not have permission to enter. If the owner of a home gives them permission, they may enter the home to look for information that is needed. However, they cannot break into a home, they cannot pick locks to gain entry, and they cannot use force to enter any building or property. If a private investigator is permitted to enter a building and the owner changes their mind, the private investigator must leave the property immediately.  


Private investigators can gain a lot of information by listening in to a conversation, but they need to be very careful when doing so. The ability to record audio varies between states, so private investigators must understand the laws for the location they’re in. States will require one or two-party consent. One party consent means the private investigator can record a conversation they are part of without the other person known. 

For two-party consent, both the private investigator and the person they’re talking to must be aware of the recording. If the private investigator is listening to two people talk and is not involved in the conversation, they cannot record what the people are saying. They can take photos of the two people talking and write down any information they get from the conversation, but they cannot use a recording device without the consent of the people having the conversation. 


Many movies show a private eye following their subject, taking lots of photos as the subject walks around or after they enter a house. Private investigators in real life do take a lot of photos, but they must take place in public. Inside a home, the person has an expectation of privacy, so private investigators cannot take photos through the windows into the home. They also, in many places, cannot take photos of someone in their backyard or in any other place where they could reasonably expect to have privacy. If the person exits the home, the private investigator can begin taking photos again as the person is outside, in public, where there is not an expectation of privacy. Penalties can be severe for private investigators who are found to violate laws relating to the expectation of privacy, so they must understand the local laws and what they can and cannot do. 


Private investigators today do a ton of their work online. With public directories and other information freely available, a private investigator can get a lot of information without leaving their office. However, there are limits to the information they can obtain online. A private investigator can check social media accounts to see what is publicly posted. They cannot hack into the social media account to see what has been posted privately or to gain private information about someone. They also cannot hack into email accounts, mobile phones, tablets, personal computers, or other private accounts online to get information about their subject. 


There is information that a private investigator cannot obtain without consent. This information includes bank accounts, financial records, or phone records. The private investigator may be able to find out where someone has a bank account, for instance, but they cannot find information about how much money the person has in the account. If they have consent, they can view phone records that might be relevant to their case, but without consent, they cannot see the phone records at all. They also can’t get other information that may be protected, though this can vary based on state laws. 


With all of the things that a private investigator cannot do, it’s important to understand that there is still a lot a private investigator can do to get information on the subject of their case. 

When the private investigator is seeking information on a person, they can gather a lot of different records, do surveillance, and monitor someone’s movements to determine more about their character and their activities. The information they can gain can include any aliases, their current and previous addresses or phone numbers, whether they own any properties, if they have any professional licenses, if they are married, and what their social media profiles are. 

Private investigators can conduct stakeouts and follow individuals to learn more about their movements and what they might be doing. They can search through various databases online to get information on criminal records, marriages and divorces, mortgage records, and voter’s registrations. They may be able to look through the trash if it is legal in that location and not on private property. They can also interview friends, family members, associates, and neighbors to learn more about the person or to find out where they might be. Any of this information can be used to build a case and to find out as much as possible about the subject they’re keeping an eye on. They can gather the information over some time and then report back to the person who hired them with all of the information they have found.

Private investigators can do quite a bit to get more information about people they are hired to learn about. However, they are required to follow local and federal laws, which means there are certain things that private investigators cannot do, such as arresting someone. When hiring a private investigator, it’s important to work with a PI in who is licensed in your local area so that you can have confidence that they will work within the laws that are specific to that jurisdiction. A licensed private investigator will understand what they can and cannot do to get the information needed to build a strong case, which means that if your case goes to court, you can be confident that the evidence will stand up to legal scrutiny. 


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